One of the topics of discussion at the 2017 Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC), held recently in Cozumel, Mexico, was regional military support for police actions, especially in the fight against drug trafficking and other forms of transnational organized crime. Costa Rica, one of the participants in the conference, does not have an armed force. To learn how the country is confronting these problems, and to discuss other issues related to regional security, Diálogo spoke with Minister of Public Safety Gustavo Mata Vega.
Diálogo: There is a tendency in the Central American region to use the armed forces to support national police forces. Costa Rica does not have an armed force. Is that why it is harder for you to deal with security issues caused by transnational crime networks?
Costa Rican Minister of Public Safety Gustavo Mata Vega: Indeed, the outlook in this region looks rather grim. And that makes you wonder. In effect, all of the security forces in the region —whether they are military, police, intelligence, or investigative— do need to join together and work on a single focus, on a single objective. To think that it’s not the armies’ problem or the armed forces’ problem or that it’s only the police’s problem – no, we can’t think that way anymore. We must build a bloc, a great alliance, logically respecting each nation’s jurisdiction and human rights. I think we can make a meaningful addition. The idea is to join forces, sharing resources and intelligence. We will be able to reach parity with those large crime networks that don’t respect nations, that don’t abide by borders, that don’t abide by laws. On this issue, I think we have to muster equal forces at the regional level.
Diálogo: Several times during the conference, you mentioned that Panama offered to host a framework for sharing information between Central American nations and the United States. Can you explain what you are referring to exactly?
Minister Mata: Of course. We have already been working on that since last year, at the last CENTSEC meeting where it was agreed that Panama would have, or would set up, a large framework for centralizing intelligence aimed at everything having to do with the fight against organized crime, against drug trafficking and all these other kinds of situations. And each nation in the region was to add an officer to that unit so that it could gather information from the officer’s country and place it at the disposal of that large information center. I thought it was great. The thing is, it didn’t come to fruition. I think the time has come for clear and concrete agreements to be made. If Panama is offering this center, similarly, we must set up, if you will, a channel for inputting data on the large quantities of cocaine that are in transit to the north or to Europe. It’s not like we’re going to compete with Key West [Joint Interagency Task Force South, located in Key West, Florida]. It’s going to be a complement, and it will even be handling information, and it will share that information. The more information there is, the more success there will be in the operations that are conducted. Working from that premise, I’m betting that this will be done as soon as possible. Logically, we are going to need the full support of the United States government, so that it too creates a unit represented by all of the police forces, be they Coast Guard services or military forces. They will take care of whom they place there, but in this new project, the backing of the United States is also important.
Diálogo: Admiral Kurt Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said that partner nations need complete trust in order to work more closely together, as far as the sharing of intelligence is concerned. Do you agree with that statement?
Minister Mata: Quite true. But Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica have already gotten past that. We are already working through the levels of trust [we share]. Whether in the operations that we carry out via WhatsApp or by phone, the information is shared with these nations’ navies, for example. Costa Rica goes out. Panama goes out. Colombia comes in and stops a suspicious vessel. We really are having some successes. Just now, a Colombian colleague was saying that last year nearly 300 metric tons of cocaine were seized. Some were seized by them and some in joint Colombian–Costa Rican operations. Similarly, the 10 metric tons that we have already seized in Costa Rica in these four months — nearly two and a half metric tons per month — was done by working under our joint accord with the United States, with information from Colombia and Panama. So you see, our four nations are working in a united way, as a single bloc, and with a certain level of trust. And that is extremely important. So that level of trust — as it relates to Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama — is already there. What we need to do is sit down together and get to work. I would say that this should serve as an example for the rest of the region. And they should join us. They should come and join our Information Center, in order to start building trust.
Diálogo: What is needed for that to happen?
Minister Mata: Changing the mentality, taking the risk, taking the step. That’s why I’ve been telling the rest of the countries, ‘gentlemen, we shouldn’t still be talking about this. Let’s get these things done; let’s take the step.’ I hope that the rest of these nations join us soon. I think they’ll visualize it because we have already been talking about this unification for quite some time, and we’re already seeing results.
Diálogo: Do you think that including Mexico as an active participant in a conference like CENTSEC is one step in that direction?
Minister Mata: Mexico is supremely important. We are going to be having a multilateral meeting where Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico will be present. I am going to propose that they assist us and that they too join forces because Mexico is supremely important. Similarly, Mexico handles tons of intelligence, tons of information, and for the success of these operations, it’s important to add that information.